Often labelled as ‘Shakespeare’s bloodiest play’, Titus Andronicus has been reimagined by the Time Zone Theatre Company and is partway through a run at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside. Running at approximately 90 minutes, straight through, it is a whirlwind trip across a tale of violence and revenge.
Set in the late days of the Roman Empire, Titus is the people’s choice of emperor following his brother’s death – however, when he returns from the wars against the Goths, he turns it down & suggests Saturninus (his eldest nephew) should rule instead. The new emperor ends up marrying the captured queen of the Goths, Tamora, who uses her position to set a revenge plot in motion. As the story progresses, there are more & more violent episodes – including the rape & mutilation of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia – until only Lucius (one of Titus’ sons) remains. As we know from the turbulent times in which we live, violence merely begets violence. The production is a timely one; its message feels more important than ever.
It is chiefly a piece of physical theatre – this approach is a bit hit-and-miss. Whilst it adds a layer of exertion that you would associate with such extremes of violence, at times it isn’t wholly clear what is happening. For patrons unfamiliar with the story, this makes it difficult to follow with any confidence. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus isn’t noted for its beautiful language, so cutting a lot of the lines is no great poetic loss – however it perhaps needs some more dialogue to explain the action a little better. There is also a lot of strangulation enacted, which gets quite repetitive. The additional space available in the Rose is only utilised for a single scene with quite a lot of talking – it might be better employed for scenes in which fewer lines need to be heard, and with greater frequency to provide a bit of variety.
There is a clever use of sound throughout, with drumming to provide pace & drama, mostly at the transitions between scenes, and the actors’ voices are also employed as instruments at times, by chanting & overlapping repeated strains of speech. At one pivotal point in the play, an increasingly uncomfortable silence builds & ramps up the tension. This, combined with Petr Vocka’s moody lighting design, makes for a very atmospheric piece of theatre.
Interestingly, there is a 50:50 gender split in casting, allowing for additional women onstage, as there are only two named female characters in this adaptation. They all commit absolutely to the physical nature of the production – and this energy really does lift the piece. There is barely a moment of respite, keeping the audience transfixed.
The clear standout performances come from Charles Sandford, as the eponymous general, and Laura Hopwood, as Tamora. Hopwood brings Tamora’s manipulative sexuality to the fore, commanding the stage and bringing Rome to its knees. Sandford is reminiscent of the Braveheart version of Scottish soldier William Wallace with his blue-streaked face, and backs up this appearance with a great physicality. Whilst he is not a hero as such, Sandford’s portrayal of his grief at Lavinia’s treatment has a genuine feel, making his ensuing actions understandable despite their barbaric nature.
My verdict? A good stab at a completely original & physical take on Shakespeare – a bit hit-and-miss, but there are memorable performances nonetheless.
Titus Andronicus runs at the Rose Playhouse until 30 July 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.